Choosing a tent for cycle touring
Opinionated and personal advice on what to look for in a tent.
When we started Breton Bikes 20 years ago there was little choice in lightweight tents. There were a few specialist tents using curved poles to make domes or tunnels, and the traditional variants on the ridge pole tent, the former being very expensive, the latter almost as expensive and a pain to use.
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Now we are deluged with designs and almost without exception they all use curved poles of one form or another – the traditional ridge tent being all but dead. The trouble is that this embarrassment of riches covers such a range of designs and prices that the unwary would-be camper can end up buying something totally unsuitable or unnecessarily expensive. In this short article I hope to give you some guide so you can narrow down the choice...
There are two questions that you need to ask yourself, “what do I want this tent do do?” and “how much do I want to spend?” This might seem blindingly obvious, but the two are not always intimately linked as we shall see.
In order to decide on what you want to do you need to imagine the sort of holiday it is going to be used on. In my case I'm going to be doing lightweight cyclecamping based at campsites. Now that last word is important. If you are backpacking in the back of beyond then your tent needs to be able to survive whatever nature throws at it. Storms, high winds, snow etc and as such it will have a certain design. It will be strong and have many pegging points, it'll also have to be made of the best materials. As this could actually end up as life or death choice then it's hard to compromise. Such a tent is likely to be very expensive, quite complicated and have less space than a 'lowland' tent for a given weight.
Now I imagine that for most of you reading this, your requirements will be much like mine, and the bottom line is that if you are caught in some terrible storm you'll be sleeping in the toilet block if your tent fails. With that 'safety-net' you can choose a tent that is rather less extreme., so lets go on to what I look for in a tent and why.
A bike will be carrying the weight, and so though light weight is good, it isn't the most important thing, nor is a small pack size as the tent just straps onto the outside of the rack so straight away my priorities are very different from a backpacker.
1 – Size
For me I like a tent that I can sit up in to get dressed, read or cook. The bell-end has to be big enough to store my gear in the dry and I also like something that allows me to have my 'mess' spread around me in the tent. That means that for just me I'll be using a tent that for a backpacker would be for two people. When I camp with Kate the size of tent goes up to a compact three person and so on. I don't see why I should sleep in a coffin for the sake of carrying an extra kg and that is all it would be.
2 – Single skin or double skin?
Unless you are absolutely strapped for cash go for a two skin tent, you'll get much less condensation and at the same time ventilation will be better because the inner tent will have lots of mesh to breath through. That said if you're skint a 10 Euro single skin tent is better than not going at all and will at least be quite light and roomy... The other advantage of a two-skin tent is that all tents leak a bit one way or another. On a decent two skin tent the inner will be treated and drips will just bead and run off – in a single skin you'll just get wet.
3 – Alloy or fibreglass poles.
Surprisingly neither of these are very good, but they are pretty much the only option. Glass fibre poles are very heavy and often will split down their length. However a bit of gaffer tape will fix such 'greenstick' fractures to a certain extent and so though your tent will look a bit distorted it will still pitch so that you can carry on.
Of course all quality tents, and even many budget tents now come with alloy poles. These are a fraction of the weight and much nicer to use. The snag is that when these break they simply snap – usually at the joints. In my experience this rate of snapping is directly attributable to the radius they are bent through almost regardless of the supposed quality of the poles. On careful inspection I've come to the conclusion that most tent poles are probably made in just a couple of factories, probably in China or some such. They all exhibit the same joint construction where a small sleeve is pressed into a tube and then four little dimples are pressed into the outer tube to stop the sleeve from moving. This sleeve then just pushes into the next tube to make the joint. If you look a the dimples you'll see that most have tiny cracks around them where the alloy has been distorted and it's usually here that the joint fails – no warning just a snap! Of course that also means that tents with poles that have lots of joins will pack smaller, but be more prone to breakage...
Of course the other thing is that aluminium fatigues – it remembers every single time it is bent and eventually fails. This is why car springs aren't made of aluminium...
This is relevant to tent design, because in hooped tents, as opposed to the old ridge type, the poles are bent into a curve. Over many years of using such poles I've come to the conclusion that the life expectancy of a pole is directly related to the radius it is bent through.
Many years ago I tested a Jack Wolfskin tent – the 'Pocket Hotel'. A small 2-person tent, this was lovely to use with near vertical walls and lots of room for a small pack size. In fact I was so impressed that I bought 4 such tents for our business. Unfortunately they proved a disaster – breaking their poles after only 3 weeks use, and after that being utterly unuseable. The reason was simply that the poles were bent into too small a radius.
Likewise a couple of years later we bought a batch of Vaude Taurus, a model still manufactured. These too were plagued with pole breakages within a few weeks and were essentially unuseable. That two major and well respected companies can produce designs that are essentially junk is down to the fact that such designs get great reviews and are initially very impressive as they offer a high room/weight ratio. For a typical user the 2 weeks lifespan before they become unreliable is enough to cover a year's worth of camping and so from a cynical marketing point of view they are successful. That the designs could leave someone without a tent in an exposed and dangerous position doesn't seem to enter the equation. Either that or they simply don't test their designs properly. It is inexcusable. Doubly so when the solution is to supply poles that are pre-bent. This would cost little to do but would prevent manufacturers using generic pole sections. Such pre-bent poles are also a little more difficult to pack, but in my experience tents with such poles survive much tighter radius designs without problems. In fact one project for the future is to design a 'pole-bender' so I can modify all tents that come through our hands.
This pole life-expectancy effects all tents, as a company that runs maybe 20 tents a week for 20 weeks I can speak with bitter experience. My advice would be to buy a design that has the largest possible radius of bend in the main tent poles. In our case our main tent is a two hoop tunnel where the radius of pole is about 75 cms and I'd have that as a reasonable minimum- yes the poles still break, but usually last over 8 weeks which is acceptable as a break is a much more isolated occurrence and carrying a repair section will usually cover it – if both poles are breaking repeatedly as with poorer designs, then you can be completely stuck.
The last thing on this subject is that though pole quality does have an effect, it's far less important than the design itself – I've had the same problem with the very best poles you can buy.
4 - Inner first or outer first
This is an old argument. Is it better to have a tent where a waterproof outer goes up and shelters you whilst you scrabble around inside hanging up a loose inner, or do you quickly pitch a taught roomy inner and throw over an outer afterwards. Obviously if it's not raining the latter is better and a lot easier, but nowadays many tents pitch both inner and outer and this is a HUGE advance!
5 - What Material?
Modern tents are made of synthetic material, either nylon or polyester. Both materials come in a variety of weights and more expensive versions are woven as 'Ripstop'. This is a pattern where tightly woven, or thicker threads are added to the material to make a kind of net of support for the thinner material. The idea being that if a rip starts as soon as it encounters these re-enforced strands it is stopped (hence the name). In the wilds this sort of thing might make a big difference, and of course all things being equal it's a good thing, but such rips are rare if you are careful and so it's not an essential (like the pole issue). Personally I use plain material, mainly because of the reasons listed below.
The next choice is between Nylon and Polyester and each has both advantages and disadvantages.
Most tents nowadays are Polyester and the main reason is that unlike nylon it doesn't stretch when wet. A Nylon tent pitch when dry, will get very droopy even in morning dew. Conversely if pitched wet it can dry out to be bow tight and even pull its pegs from the ground. Some expensive tents still use nylon but coat it with silicone or similar so that it repels water and doesn't suffer in this way, at least when new. Bizarrely some polyester tents use nylon guying lines which do exactly the same trick, either going so slack as to be useless, or so tight as to rip the pegs from the ground. Again this applies to some pretty big names in the tent industry and is indefensible...
So everyone should use polyester? Yes it's much better in the wet, the weakness is that the effect of UV rays – i.e. sunlight, is catastrophic. In direct sunlight we reckon that our tents will last 10 weeks before their flysheets become so weakened that they tear very easily. By 20 weeks you can just pull them apart with your hands. Again, because of the typical usage pattern of a tent the manufacturers can get away with this, but at Breton Bikes the weakness is laid bare as it would be for any extended tour. Nylon also suffers from this, but in my experience nylon lasts about twice as long.
6 - Groundsheets
Because of the need to make 'headline' weight figures very few tents have remotely adequate groundsheets and the best answer is to go to your local agriculteral supplier and buy some black plastic sheeting and cut it to size. As well as protecting the groundsheet and ensuring it stays waterproof, this sheet can be a handy thing to sit on for picnics and an emergency patch for a ripped tent. As they weight little and cost next to nothing such a sheet is essential.
Well sorry to be so down on tent design, but the fact is that there are few really great designs out there, most are inevitably riddled with compromise and you are unlikely to find your perfect tent anywhere. However, knowing where those compromises are will help you choose a tent that will work for you.
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